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Catching Up With Nolan Richardson

Despite having won more than 500 games, Arkansas’ former championship coach cannot find work. But coaching in the NBA may be in his future.
By Patrick Harris

“40 Minutes of Hell,” was the phrase used to describe the style of play taught by Nolan Richardson, a style that helped build the University of Arkansas into a basketball powerhouse. During his 17 years at Arkansas, Richardson led the Razorbacks to three Final Fours, and two NCAA title games, winning the national championship in 1994, a year he also earned national coach of the year honors. Observers called his “40 Minutes of Hell” coaching philosophy “controlled chaos,” but in the spring of 2002, chaos is all there was in Fayetteville as it related to Arkansas basketball. 

In the midst of a mediocre season, Richardson responded to the constant media scrutiny with his own criticism of reporters and fans.

“If they go ahead and pay me my money, they can take this job tomorrow.” Richardson went on to say, “I’m glad I don’t have to answer to really anyone but myself and my God upstairs. That’s the only people I answer to for real. I’ll answer to the chancellor and the athletic director, but fans and things of that nature, I don’t answer to those people.”

With those words went Richardson’s job. At a cost of $3 million, Arkansas bought out the last six years of his seven-year contract, citing a termination at convenience of the university clause in his contract and explained that his lost interest and lack of commitment to the university undermined public confidence and support for the program. Richardson filed a lawsuit for wrongful termination based on race and a violation of free speech rights.

“Just because I signed a contract, doesn’t mean that I give up my rights to be a man,” Richardson told Black Issues, recalling his dismissal. “It was about who I am as a man, what I fight and what I stand for.”

 More than two years after he filed his lawsuit seeking $8.7 million in back pay, front pay and compensatory damages, Federal District Court Judge Bill Wilson dismissed Richardson’s case in July 2004, writing in his decision that although he ruled against Richardson, “the record (of the University) is a long way from devoid of incidents which could cause him to hold these beliefs” that he was fired because of his race. Richardson and his attorneys have appealed the judge’s decision.

But for now, Richardson, despite having won more than 500 games, cannot find work. He echoes the plight of other Black coaches in Division I.

“We never had the good jobs, we had to take jobs and make them better,” Richardson says. “I feel that we’re behind in the race.”

According to the NCAA’s biennial study of race and gender demographics of athletics personnel for 2003-2004, of the 263 head coaching positions in men’s Division I basketball, 61 are held by African Americans.

“I don’t know if they hire you to fire you to say ‘we tried and it didn’t work out, so now we can go on and hire someone else of a different race,'” Richardson says. “I really think that happens a lot.”

Today, Richardson works for the MBC Network as an analyst for Black college basketball in addition to his annual golf tournament, the proceeds of which fund various charitable organizations in his hometown of El Paso, Texas.

“When my daughter passed away 18 years ago, I put on a golf tournament to benefit charities,” Richardson says. “I had 35 charities in Arkansas and when they dismissed me, I took the golf tournament to El Paso and started with four or five and now I’m up to 15 charities we help out.”

Richardson hasn’t ruled out returning to coaching in the professional ranks. He has hired an agent to pursue an NBA job.

“Once you’ve gone to the mountaintop and know how to get there, you at least try to get there again,” Richardson says. “I’ve won on every level from the national junior college championship with Western Texas Junior College to the National Invitational Tournament with Tulsa University to the national championship with Arkansas. The only natural thing to do is to win an NBA championship.”

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